Sickies unmask offices
Workplace culture and management practices can determine sick leave taken, writes Sophie Toomey
SICKIES, or mental health days as they are fondly known, are embedded in the Australian vernacular and culture. According to recent statistics the practice still widely exists.
A survey by recruitment company Talent2 has found 40 per cent of Australian employees feel vindicated taking a day off every now and then just for themselves. They don’t think four weeks’ annual leave and mandatory 10 days of personal leave enough, and 43 per cent of employees said they had indeed taken a sick day rather than take a day from annual leave.
Though some research may create the image of an exploding ‘‘ sickie’’ culture, there are always two sides to a story. A 2005 Careerone study found 65 per cent of Australians go to work when sick, and 46 per cent of those who did take time off work spend it feeling guilty. Younger people are more likely to feel guilty about taking time off, most likely related to the fact that 68 per cent of them use the time to ‘‘ hang out’’ with family and friends, or go shopping.
Lawyer Sibelle Thomas works part-time and says that she inevitably feels guilty about taking sick days. ‘‘ My boss has said to me when I have called in sick ‘ can’t you get sick on your days off?’ He knows I have young kids and another job, and that means no days off — but he resents that since I am only with him two days a week that one of them is spent not working.’’
Thomas says she has only taken six days off in six years, and has spent those trying to do what work she can from home. ‘‘ I have frequently gone to work when sick, even with a serious and contagious flu. I would never take a sick day for recreation. I couldn’t bear the guilt.’’
Interestingly, 75 per cent of those surveyed by Talent2 said they would rather their colleagues stayed home when sick.
Cherie Curtis, organisational psychologist with recruitment and workplace solutions company Onetest says it’s important employees remember that when they are genuinely sick, they are allowed to take time off and rest. ‘‘ Feelings of guilt relate directly back to the kind of relationships they have at work, predominantly with management.’’
While there are those who spend their sick days getting a suntan, a study conducted by psychologists at Onetest found for many, sick days are taken to recharge or attend to unfinished ‘‘ personal admin’’.
‘‘ A lot of sickies aren’t taken to relax on a beach. but to fulfill commitments,’’ Curtis says, ‘‘ running household errands and looking after sick family members are among the main reasons people take a ‘ sickie’.’’
But there are other, more complex motivations for sickies. Dissatisfaction at work emerges as the primary reason for illegitimate sick days.
Says Curtis, ‘‘ A study by Gallup found the single biggest reason people take sick leave is management. People tend to take ‘ sickies’ when they are unhappy at work or don’t feel rewarded. They may not want to face their boss, co-worker or think it won’t be noticed. Others are too stressed to go to work, or they may want to avoid a deadline.’’
Curtis says taking time out becomes a perceived way of redressing an imbalance or sense of disempowerment. ‘‘ Employees who don’t feel well treated or appreciated take it upon themselves to make things balanced. Their
‘ attitude becomes ‘ I deserve it’ or ‘ I’m owed it’, so they feel justified in taking a day off.’’
Curtis says that, predictably, sick days are most commonly taken at certain ‘‘ crunch times’’ of the year, periods when stress and deadlines are at a premium. ‘‘ People will take sick days at the end of the financial year and also at times when it’s more acceptable generally to be sick. It won’t be so noticeable then.’’
It’s often a workplace culture that dictates sick leave taken. Curtis says the strongest predictor of the amount of sick leave an employee will take is the amount of sick leave taken by co-workers. ‘‘ The amount of sick leave others take establishes what is considered normal, or expected, in that work place.’’
Curtis says research shows that workers commonly don’t get sick when they start a new job. She explains that this is not because they magically stop getting ill. ‘‘ It takes time to figure out what is the norm in that workplace, and they learn it by watching what happens when someone else takes a sickie. If there are no consequences, the door for sickies is seen to be legitimately opened. If people take 15 days a year before the management questions it, then that is how many people will take.’’
Curtis believes that companies can only keep levels of sick leave low by using both the ‘‘ carrot’’ and the ‘‘ stick’’ approach, combining incentives and repercussions. She stresses that it is often an organisation’s culture that creates the desire for excessive leave. ‘‘ If employees are averse to going to work because they have an aggressive manager or abusive co-workers, or they are routinely faced with demands they feel unable to meet, then the attraction of the stress day is going to be very high. In short, improve conditions and employees will be provided with a disincentive for time off.’’
Juliet Bourke, a partner at Aequus Partners, researches diversity and flexibility and says that a lateral approach must be taken to sick leave. ‘‘ Enabling greater workplace flexibility has been shown in research to result in lower levels of unplanned absences. If employees can plan a morning off to meet a tradesman they won’t disguise the absence by taking a ‘ sickie’.
On the ‘‘ carrot’’ side, Andrew Lovell of Leo Burnett Advertising says his experience ties in with research findings. ‘‘ We have found that if there is flexibility and open dialogue with a supervisor or management then sick leave is rarely abused and the need to police it is diminished.’’ In addition to flexibility, employees are rewarded with a day off on their birthday. ‘‘ That’s on the proviso that managing their work commitments enables them to do that.’’
On the ‘‘ stick’’ side, Curtis says companies can have a policy of requiring employees to be formally accountable for even one day of sick leave. ‘‘ Employers can demand a certificate for one day if it’s clearly in their policy. Enforcing that policy will reduce sick leave.’’
Workplace lawyer Joydeep Hor of Harmer’s workplace lawyers says such a policy is legal. ‘‘ Sick leave is for those who are genuinely ill, and it is set out in the Workplace Relations Act that employers can ask employees to account for time taken as sick leave and demand certification. Many don’t.’’
Lovell says that Leo Burnett’s sick leave policy is clear on doctors’ certificates, but that the provisions aren’t strictly adhered to because they have found it unnecessary. ‘‘ Our formal written policy on sick leave is to require a doctor’s certificate after two days of sick leave, but this is generally not enforced. We might require it after an extended leave to ensure that an employee has doctor’s permission to return to work, or for the purposes of insurance claims.’’
Lovell says that in spite of their working in a high demand and often high-stress industry, they have rarely had problems with excess absenteeism. ‘‘ If it does happen we give priority to finding out what is driving it. If it’s valid then we try to resolve the issues, medical or otherwise. That might mean flexible working hours, extended leave or providing resource support.’’
Hor says that where excessive absences are a problem, an employer is entitled to negotiate an attendance management plan. ‘‘ If you have someone who has taken 40 sick days in six months you might put them on a plan of no more than 10 days’ leave in the following six months.’’ Hor says however in cases like this there are broader considerations. ‘‘ You would want to know why they are away so much. You have to think of health and safety obligations and whether work is contributing to their illness.’’
Hor says there are some common misconceptions and stresses that employees should be clear on what their entitlements are. ‘‘ You can’t accrue sick leave, or get paid for it when you leave. Nor is it legal for companies to trade off sick leave provisions for higher pay or other bonuses.’’ A certain amount of sick leave is mandatory. ‘‘ Under Work Choices, what used to be called sick leave is now personal leave and combines sick leave and carer’s leave. Ten days a year is the legal minimum for that, but it is prorata for part-timers and not available to casual workers.’’
Hor explains that employers are entitled to consider terminating an employee if their excessive absence is affecting their ability to do the job. ‘‘ There have been cases where employers have been successful in sacking employees for this reason, on the basis that their absence affected their ability to do their job. It is more common in blue-collar industries like construction.’’
Lovell says they have had very limited experience with abuse of sick leave, something he attributes directly to the company’s culture. ‘‘ Because of the collaborative nature of how we work, the employee would not only be letting themselves down but their team and we like to think our culture discourages this behaviour. If there is an abuse of the system then we warn about it, and individuals generally lift their game.’’
Carrot’ policy: Andrew Lovell says workplaces need openness